Life is powered by an endless series of chemical reactions as molecules collide, merge, or split, with atoms scattering to bond elsewhere so making new molecules. When reproducing this process in a laboratory, it is understandably important to be able not only to predict the main result of the collision, but also to trace the stray atoms.
Amazingly, it is possible to calculate the results of such collisions. Part of this complex calculation can be performed using classical mechanics but accurately predicting the course of the reactions requires advanced calculations based on quantum mechanics. It was for his work creating a computer programme to perform these ‘multiscale’ calculations that Michael Levitt was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, which he shared with Martin Karplus and Arieh Warshel.
Levitt developed the first computer software to conduct simulations of DNA and proteins and worked on simplified representations of protein structure for analysis.
Levitt was born in May, 1947, in Pretoria, South Africa and showed an early aptitude for mechanics in a school career (at Sunnyside Primary School and Pretoria Boys High School) he describes as “enjoyable but not particularly challenging”. This, perhaps coupled to his parents separating when he was nine, led to a rare moment of delinquency in December 1962, when Michael stayed out playing snooker until 2am. But this classic sign of a ‘misspent youth’ was to be the making of him. His worried mother paid for extra tuition to compress his final years of school into a matter of months and signed him up for Pretoria University at the age of 15. There, he studied Applied Mathematics, which he found easy enough, despite the lectures being in Afrikaans.
After passing his first year exams, Michael was sent to vacation in London with his aunt and uncle, scientists Max Sterne, who created an anthrax vaccine, and Tikvah Alper, the discoverer of the prion, who did her post doc with Lise Meitner. Despite the cold, Michael decided to stay, studying A-level maths, applied maths and physics at Acton Technical College, and was joined by his mother, sister and brother. In England he was also introduced to TV and, through John Kendrew’s documentary series “The Thread of Life”, to the beauty of molecular biology. As a result, he applied to King’s College London (home of Maurice Wilkins co-discoverer of DNA), where he gained his BSc in physics in 1967.
While at King’s he also studied computers, first in nearby Borehamwood and then further afield at Berkeley, California. His main aim, however, was to do a PhD at the Medical Research Council laboratory in Cambridge and, after a determined campaign of attrition, was accepted for the 1968 intake, under one strict condition. Michael had to agree to being dispatched to Israel to work under Shneior Lifson at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. There he met PhD student Arieh Warshel, with whom he wrote the computer programme that used the consistent Force Field to calculate properties of any molecule.
Returning to Cambridge in September 1968, Levitt started to work at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology under Robert Diamond, and used his computer programme to attempt to model tRNA with Francis Crick and Aaron Klug. He gained his PhD in 1971 and divided the next few years between Cambridge and Rehovot, working closely with Warshel and setting out the basis for multiscale models in chemistry in two papers published in 1975 &1976.
From 1977-79 Levitt worked, again with Crick, at the Salk Institute in California, before taking up a permanent position at the Weizmann Institute where he was appointed chair of Chemical Physics in 1980. However, he continued regular work stints in the UK, US and Germany, where he served on the Scientific Advisory Committee of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. In 1987 he was invited to work at Stanford University in California, initially for three years, but has remained there ever since as Professor of Structural Biology, dividing his time between work there and family in Israel.
As well as the Nobel Prize, Levitt was elected to the Fellowship of the UK Royal Society in 2000 and to the Membership of the US National Academy of Science in 2001.
Picture: © Peter Badge/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings